Goodwin widens scope with 'Leadership in Turbulent Times'

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MANCHESTER, VT. — Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has earned widespread acclaim for her examinations of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt. In her latest book, "Leadership in Turbulent Times" (released on Sept. 18), Goodwin studies them all, training her lens on their youths, struggles and successes as a means to illuminate the qualities that shaped their governance. Goodwin enjoyed widening her scope after concentrating on one president in past books.

"I'd always feel I was leaving the old guy behind, like I was leaving an old boyfriend behind," Goodwin said during a recent telephone interview in advance of her reading at Manchester's Maple Street School on Saturday, a Northshire Bookstore-presented event. "I felt guilty because I'd have to move all my books from one room to the other. So, I started thinking, what if I could look at the people I know the best but think about them in a different way?"

In the book, Goodwin doesn't attempt to ascribe leadership to a single trait.

"There's no master key," she said.

But during her research, Goodwin recognized certain characteristics that these four presidents possessed.

"They all shared an ambition early on. I think without ambition or a drive for success, it's hard to get far in any field, actually. Eventually, that ambition switched from being for the personal benefit of themselves for being for the larger whole, and it switched at different points in each one of them," she said.

Self-reflection was also vital.

"Nobody arrives full-blown as a leader, so the question is, when you're young and when you keep leading entering middle-age, before you get to this highest position, have you been able to acknowledge errors and learn from your mistakes?" Goodwin said.

Resilience was more pronounced in these four men than most, according to Goodwin. Lincoln had to overcome depression. Teddy Roosevelt endured the deaths of his mother and wife within a single day. FDR fought polio. LBJ had to recover from a massive heart attack. They were also all able to recharge.

"Our energy is doubled if one can figure out how to replenish it," Goodwin said.

Focusing on their leadership partly stemmed from late-night discussions Goodwin had with classmates at Colby College in the early 1960s.

"Where does ambition come from? When does a person recognize themselves as a leader? Does a man make the times or the times make a man? I still remember my younger self, we'd be staying up all night debating such things," she recalled.

Investigating such queries represents a foray into the leadership and business management genre for Goodwin, at least in print.

"For years, I've been lecturing to college audiences but also to business groups about leadership," she said.

Each time she released a work of presidential history, she would generate a leadership talk about it.

"In order to do those lectures, I had read a lot of the leadership literature," she said.

One of the most prominent historians in the world, Goodwin has tried to incorporate some of the presidents' leadership tactics, particularly Lincoln's, into her daily life.

"For me, the people who work with me in various places, whether it's at home or on the road or my publishers or my research person, you think about: Am I being a good team leader, even if it's a small team, and are there things that I could do better as he did? He would write little letters of praise to them, handwritten letters, even when it was something he had done," she said.

The times also motivated Goodwin's endeavor, which began about five years ago.

"There also was a sense, even five years ago, that somehow something wasn't working in Washington, that the leadership that had, in [some] of these cases, been able to bring the country through with both parties behind them, already then was showing signs of deteriorating," she said.

The four presidents examined all endured turbulent times, including the Civil War and Great Depression. In that sense, Goodwin's work will be of reassurance for some readers.

"We've lived through worse before and gotten through," Goodwin said.

Their best attributes can serve as building blocks for improvements both individually and societally.

"If you see that this is what genuine leadership is, then you can judge what's happening today against that," she said. "We have to look for that kind of leader."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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